MFA Personal Statement

I’m including this because during the application process I couldn’t find a single example of a successful MFA statement, so here’s mine:

PERSONAL STATEMENT

My literary practice began as a reaction to an alien environment, and at its best retains the defiant posture of exile. I was born in London but dragged through a progression of increasingly strange, pungent countries by my parents, who were both foreign correspondents. Our last post was New Delhi, a dusty megalopolis teeming with medico-pharmacological complexes, sleek five star hotels whose clattering silverware and condensation-streaked windows conceal croaking lepers and shantytowns that look like dried mud puddles behind the tinted glass of an A/C taxi cab.

I attended an American Embassy School in an armed compound but prowled the city after-hours, trying to assemble my own version of the crystalline future I was convinced my homeland was sliding into and I could only glimpse at through the trickle of data coming over our 2,400-baud Internet connection. I collected transistors and halogen bulbs, gobbled waxy orange spansules of dubious intelligence-expanding pharmaceuticals intended for Alzheimer’s patients, and put out an underground newspaper called The Green Banana. My stories (pastiche of William Gibson and line art traced from The Last Whole Earth Catalogue) were typed, snipped into columns, taped onto B4 paper ‘plates’ and photocopied. My largest run was 300 copies, and peculiar enough to keep me confined to the school library “under supervision” by soft-spoken, khaki-clad American strangers when the Clintons came to visit.

I moved to the United States in 1997 for college, expecting to become a combination chemical engineer, architect and painter. The United States I found left me reeling; I drifted in and out of college, moved to Colorado, then California, then Hong Kong to intern at TIME magazine. I held jobs at casinos, in toy factories, forged bronze bells in an architectural commune in the Arizona desert, reading and writing throughout. At various moments Don Delilo, J.G. Ballard, Rudy Rucker, Jonathan Lethem, James Ellroy, Peter Carey, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and W. Somerset Maugham all fundamentally re-wired the way I thought about literature.

Early on my “real” work was patchy, more cartoonish doodle than writing, but gradually it began to take shape, particularly after working as a freelance journalist and online editor. I moved to New York City in 2002 and completed my undergraduate education at the Columbia’s School of General Studies in 2007, where, with help of superb instructors like Sam Lipsyte and Joanna Hershon I learned to discipline myself and pin down ideas, build the story-making machinery, and churn memories into fiction. What I want from grad school is to come in from the cold, to contextualize my work within the larger discourse of contemporary writing and perfect my exile patois. I completed my first novel in May, it was an attempt to harness that angry sense of alienation I used to exist in; though the story veered off into thriller territory in the latter third, I feel I have reached the point where I am confident enough for informed feedback and that, above all else is what I am really looking for.

27 Comments »

  1. Jamie says:

    Hey – if this helps you, leave me a comment! Please… I do this only for the attention

  2. Lisa Ruiz says:

    Hi Jamie,
    I totally enjoyed reading your statement. Your insights and perspective are enlightening and your talent for the written word is evident. Your writing makes me wanting to read more….. It appears that your background, upbringing and of course your keen intellect have provided you with the raw materials and stimulation to create rich stories I would very much enjoy reading. I look forward to following your career!

  3. Jess says:

    Thanks for posting. I enjoyed slipping into your world so quickly and so clearly. I am also battling the systematic process of revealing myself on paper. I hope I come across as honestly as you do.

  4. James M says:

    Welcome visitors from Singapore, Dakkar, Davos and Shanghai!

  5. Fran says:

    Excellent statement, there. Quick question: How much did you alter this for individual schools? Should I really be worrying about personalizing my main personal statement per institution, or should I pretty much leave things as-is?

    • James M. says:

      I left things pretty much as is, but I should have tailored them . Maybe talk about why this particular small/large/urban/whatever program would fits your needs better than any other one… I probably should have talked about writing more as well

  6. samia altaf says:

    I like what you write. It speaks to me.

  7. roy says:

    James!

    this is fantastic!…. i am applying to grad school at the moment…. I would love to use this as a model for my letter…if you don’t mind…

    -roy-

  8. FK says:

    This is the only good one I’ve found. Thank you.

    • Jamie says:

      My pleasure! Good luck (and when you do get accepted don’t be afraid to quibble with them for financial aid before you accept, I didn’t and regret it)

  9. Hannah says:

    Well done! Thanks for sharing. Plenty of us out here looking for some good models.

  10. Christine says:

    I’m really glad you posted this. I’ve been looking for examples of personal statements for MFA programs for a while – they really are few and far between! (To use a cliche that I will not put in my own statement.) I presume you got into Columbia with this, right? Have you talked to other people in your MFA program about what they wrote for their personal statement? I’m wondering if most people take a creative approach, as you do, or whether it’s more common to just clearly state one’s goals.

    • My pleasure… I did get in (and have since graduated). I’ve seen a few other statements. Most do err on the side of caution and clearly state their goals, and people have told me that my voice is a bit too bossy for a personal statement. I’d try to make your statement entertaining to read, but try not to repel anyone!

  11. Cora says:

    Thank you so much for this. Very helpful. I’m applying to MFA programs this fall and I’ve been scouring the internet looking for personal statement examples and finding hardly any. I was wondering if you ever sent people your actual portfolio at the time of your admission to Columbia. If you do, I would really appreciate looking at the work of someone who has been a successful applicant to such a quality school. (zyphoidwolf@aol.com). Either way, thank you so much!

  12. Chels says:

    This is a great resource, thanks so much for posting! I’m applying to poetry MFA programs and I’ve struggled with balancing my rhetorical flourishes and supplying actual information, this is helpful, also just fun to read, interesting life story.

  13. Alex says:

    Good essay, I’m going to be apply to a screenwriting program and I need an essay too, this one shows a mature voice yet is entertaining and reflective. You’re in NYC? And you’ve graduated? Congratulations. I wish you the best in your career!

  14. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this! I am currently applying for an MFA and have been feeling nervous about using a less formal voice to better describe who I am as a writer. Yours was inspiring!

  15. Amy says:

    Thank you so much for posting this wonderful essay. It’s helped me so much with putting mine together.

    I am using one particular scene from my childhood – the body reads like a story really – and I’m flanking the body with an intro that explains me, and what writing means to me, and the ending is still a WIP.

    I love the idea of submitting two short stories instead of 30 pages of a novel!! My short stories are much stronger right now than my first novel in progress and it’s been really stressing me out.

    I’m going to call my school to see if this is acceptable with them. If it is, I’ll submit two short stories and I’ve got you to thank!!

    My the force be with you!

    Love,
    Amy

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